Located on Cormorant Island off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, you will find Alert Bay. It’s a busy working coastal town that proudly celebrates its First Nations and Pioneer heritage.
The Alert Bay Accord
Alert Bay, the destination point of Cormorant Island, is North Vancouver Island’s oldest municipality. It is shared by a diverse population of approximately 1300 citizens who have developed a mutually beneficial relationship.
The Alert Bay Accord was created in 1999 and is the first of its kind between a Municipality and a First Nations Band. It describes common goals of promoting a high standard of cultural, economic, and environmental quality of life for the benefit of all residents of Cormorant Island. While it was originally signed in 1999, it was signed again in 2012 to reinstate the agreement.
Cormorant Island, or Yalis as it was originally known, was once populated by a nation of people who called themselves the Kwakwaka’wakw.
In 1792, Captain George Vancouver anchored his ship the Discovery in a nearby cove. The First Nation’s chief at the time, Cheslakee, confronted and then later befriended the captain. Around 1860, the Europeans, who settled on the small island, named it after the Navy ships HMS Alert and HMS Cormorant.
Alert Bay became the dominant trading and service centre for many North Vancouver Island regions and First Nations communities. The island was a profitable hunting ground for traders of otter pelts, coal, gold, timber, whales, and the seemingly limitless abundance of fish.
The huge runs of salmon in the Nimpkish River caught the attention of two entrepreneurs, S.A. Spencer and Wesley Huson. In 1870 they decided to set up a salmon saltery on Cormorant Island, due to its prime location opposite the river mouth. In 1881 they turned the saltery into a cannery.
Alert Bay became the largest commercial fishing town on the central coastline.
Unfortunately, over-fishing and clear-cut logging eventually destroyed spawning grounds and drastically depleted the resource.
Alert Bay is known internationally as a centre for First Nations Culture.
The world-renowned U’mista Cultural Centre, founded in 1980, is Canada’s longest-running First Nations museum and cultural education facility.
The Centre was built as a groundbreaking project to house potlatch artifacts. These artifacts were once seized by Canadian authorities in 1922, during a period of cultural repression. The Potlatch Collection tells an epic story of resistance and resilience. The name itself (U’mista) means ‘the return of something important’.
Along with the Potlatch Collection, you will find many other fascinating exhibits, as well as an extensive art gallery and gift shop. They also offer group cultural tours and presentations by dance troupes in July and August.
World’s Tallest Totem Pole and ‘Namgis Big House
Standing at 173 feet (52 metres) a big draw to Alert Bay is seeing the world’s tallest Totem Pole.
This particular Totem Pole is a bit different culturally. While most Totem Poles are specific to a particular family, this one represents a few of the tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw. There is also a bit of a controversy over why it is considered the world’s tallest. This is because it is actually comprised of a 10-foot pole attached to a 163-foot Totem. Regardless, it is still magnificent to see!
You will find this Totem Pole located next to the ‘Namgis Traditional Big House.
In the summer months, the Big House is the place to be for traditional dance performances from Alert Bay’s local ‘Namgis community. Please ask at the Visitor’s Centre for performance times and ticket prices. (The Visitor Centre is found just after you exit the ferry on the right-hand side).
Other Totem Poles
Totem Poles originating in Alert Bay are perhaps some of the most familiar. There are several found in Stanley Park in Vancouver, while others are featured in various museums across North America and throughout the world.
On Cormorant Island there are 23 Totem Poles to view (besides the world’s tallest). You can find the majority of the other totems in the original ‘Namgis burial grounds, where they represent the memory of those who have passed away. While it is forbidden to enter the burial ground, the totems are easily viewed from the roadside.
If you stop at the Alert Bay Visitor Centre after you exit the ferry, they will provide you with a Totem Pole brochure. This information will not only help you find all the totem poles on the island but will also let you know what each one represents.
Other Attractions on Cormorant Island
Alert Bay Library-Museum
Although the island may be small (only 4.9 km long), it is so rich in history that it warrants two museums!
the Alert Bay Museum is a one-room museum known for its many historical photographs (more than 7,000 in all!). You can also find memorabilia and a few stories from missionaries, loggers, fishermen, merchants, and doctors, whom all played a role in the evolution of Alert Bay.
The museum can be found next to the Visitor’s Centre on Fir Street.
Alert Bay Ecological Park
Originally known as ‘Gator Gardens’ due to its eerie landscape, this park was renamed in 1998 to Alert Bay Ecological Park.
When Spencer and Huson (mentioned above in ‘History’) turned the salmon saltery into a cannery, they needed to build a dam for fresh water for the cannery. They followed the streams uphill and found a boggy area. The damned water was then piped back down to their packing house. Within five years, the top of the hill completely flooded and ultimately killed the majority of the trees.
The dam can still be seen today and remains partway up the hill. The water continues to bubble up from under the ground faster than it runs down the hill.
The Ecological Park has a series of trails that take you around the forested area. A boardwalk across the marsh allows visitors a close-up look at the swamp’s ecosystem. The area provides great opportunities for bird-watchers.
The park can be found at the end of Alder road, and adjacent to the island’s only campground.
Alert Bay is “Home of the Killer Whale”.
Orcas are abundant along the full length of British Columbia’s mainland coast and travel as far north as Alaska. However, the pristine waterways that surround Cormorant Island are some of the best places to find resident Orcas. The area is also known for Humpback, Minke, and Transient killer whales.
Sea Smoke Whale Watching has been providing tours in the area to happy customers since 1986.
Culture Shock Gallery
For an interactive cultural experience head to the Culture Shock Gallery. Led by knowledgeable local people, you will find a gallery of one-of-a-kind art, jewellery, woven cedar articles, and unique clothing. Each artist melds time-honoured west coast native designs with contemporary designs not found anywhere else.
The Gallery can be found on Front Street (left as you exit the ferry terminal) and perched over the beach.
Watching Cruise Ships
Fir Street, which runs along the shoreline, provides a spectacular viewpoint for passing cruise ships. The same beach is also a great area to sit and watch for sea life and birds.
Getting to Alert Bay
Cormorant Island, home of Alert Bay, is linked by a 35-minute ferry ride from Port McNeil.
The Tri-Island Ferry service runs 7 days a week between Port McNeill, Sointula, and Alert Bay.
It’s a bit of a convoluted schedule, so make sure you check the BC Ferries’ website for updates before you go.
While you are in the area, make sure to check out Malcolm Island (Sointula).
Have you been to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island? Let me know about it in the comments below!